Food miles and farmers: Shortening the distance between farm and table

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Food miles measure the distance between farm and table. Food miles are often used to quantify the environmental impact of food production and transportation.

How food miles are calculated

Volume, distance, mode of transportation, energy and emissions are factored into a food’s miles. Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted as a result. Food that travels great distances generally uses more energy and emits more carbon than food that travels short distances.

The average pound of tomatoes sold in the U.S. supermarket travel 1,569 food miles and emits .21 kg CO2. The average tomato at the farmers market travels less than 60 miles from farm to table and emits .13 kg of CO2.

Interested in learning more about food carbon emissions? Check out this calculator.

Why food miles matter to farmers

Environmental impact, food quality and nutritional value, security and strength of local supply, economics, and marketing are reasons food miles matter to farmers.

Environmental impact. Dependency on fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change hurt the environment and challenge the future of farming. Reducing energy inputs and fuel used for food production is good for the environment and farmers’ wallets.

Food quality and nutritional value. Food quality and nutritional value diminish with every food mile. Meat producers struggle to maintain freshness of refrigerated products during transit. Wilt, bruises and blemishes that occur during transit lessen produce growers’ profits. Local sales reduce food miles and maintain food quality.

Security and strength of local supply. Dependency on outside sources for food to feed Americans is not safe. Increasing concerns over foreign food safety and production practices offer American farmers an opportunity to grow a healthy home market.

Utilizing local suppliers and processors invests in regional economic development and builds a resilient local food supply.

Economics. International agricultural trade has risen since 1960. Consumers demand a constant supply of their favorite fresh foods year-round. Globalization has made it cheap and easy to provide them with such, but at great cost to American farmers.

When large multinational companies dominate the food system, American farmers cannot compete. Small family farms have been hit the hardest.

Small farms can create economies of scale and reduce food miles by partnering with other local producers. Pooling trips to the processor, transporting food together and sharing refrigerated storage space reduces the carbon footprint of food production. Coordinating bulk feed and supply purchases saves money and fuel.

Marketing. Consumer awareness of food miles and demand for sustainably produced food is on the rise. Modern shoppers understand the consequences of eating high-mile foods frequently and actively seek local low-mile alternatives.

Direct marketing allows farmers to reduce food miles and increase profits. Educating customers how you shorten the distance between farm and table differentiates your farm products and increases their value.

Ways farmers can reduce the carbon footprint of food production

  • Sell direct
  • Target local restaurants, institutions, retailers
  • Use natural season extenders
  • Grow varieties well-suited to regional climate
  • Reduce energy inputs
  • Use less fuel
  • Use energy efficient cooling and heating systems
  • Partner with other producers
  • Use local processors and suppliers
  • Process minimally
  • Choose eco-friendly packaging
  • Condense trips to town and markets
  • Market to multiple outlets in a concentrated area


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